Originally published in Spectator | Australia
Coal will be essential to power generation in Australia for the foreseeable future. Of its competitors, natural gas for base load electricity (i.e. continuous electricity) is significantly more expensive; Nuclear power is at least a decade away; and wind and solar power are weather and cloud dependent and therefore unreliable. In addition, both prove to be expensive.
Nevertheless, coal is hardly part of the public discussion about future energy developments. Rather, it is a discussion dominated by renewable energy and natural gas. That should change.
Coal: should emissions rule out?
When it comes to coal, the first question that arises is whether emissions should be excluded or not. Reliable and cost-effective coal-fired power causes higher greenhouse gas emissions than electricity based on natural gas, renewable energies or nuclear power. Is that important?
Yes, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations body responsible for climate change information. In its latest Synthesis Report (March 2023), the IPCC states:
“To limit human-caused global warming, net carbon emissions must be zero…Climate change poses a threat to human well-being and the health of the planet…The window of opportunity for ensuring a livable and sustainable future for all is fast closing .
However, there is significant disagreement on this view.
For example, US climate researcher Judith Curry wrote in The Australian on March 29, 2023 that the IPCC’s “extreme scenarios” on emissions and global warming “are now generally accepted as implausible”.
This “has rendered much of the literature and assessments of climate impacts of the last decade obsolete”. These extreme scenarios are “still prominently highlighted” in the IPCC’s latest synthesis report.
Moreover (notes Professor Curry) the comments in this latest report are much more alarming than those in the IPCC’s assessment reports, which (as opposed to the synthesis report) were written by scientists.
Steven Koonin, a prominent US physicist, author of the 2021 book Unsettled, and former senior Obama administration official. says that “there is not enough science to make any useful predictions about how the climate will change in the coming decades, let alone what impact our actions will have on it”.
Professor Ian Plimer, a prominent Australian geologist and Spectator author, says: “If governments, the United Nations or climate activists want to stop the normal planetary process of climate change, then they have to stop plate tectonics and the Earth’s surface variations in orbit and stop fluctuations.” of solar power.’
Professor Michael Asten (retired Professor of Geophysics at Monash University and former Senior Geophysicist at BHP) is part of an international team researching the growing field of climate science: natural cycles of climate change over the past 2,000 years.
These cycles include warm periods in Roman times up to the year 500 AD and in the Middle Ages between 900 and 1300 AD, followed by a cooling period for 550 years. Until 1850, global temperature fluctuations had nothing to do with emissions.
Are natural cycles more important – and possibly even more important – than man-made emissions? This is not yet known, and until it is known, “climate science should be viewed as work in progress and not something settled,” according to Professor Asten.
In short, while scientists agree that man-made emissions are causing global warming, they disagree on whether those emissions are the primary cause of that warming.
With this problem unresolved, there is no reason to ban coal because of the emissions. There may be such a case in the future – and maybe not.
Nuclear power: not a short-term option
Nuclear power is not a short-term option. Unlike coal, nuclear power is emission-free. But nuclear power in Australia is at least 10 to 15 years away.
This reflects the time required to achieve sufficient political consensus to allow the development of the first commercial nuclear power plant, followed by regulatory changes, site selection, planning approvals (including consideration for radioactive waste management), engineering design and construction.
As a result, nuclear power will do nothing to solve the electricity problems of the next decade. And even if it is there, it may be supplemented by other forms of power generation (e.g. coal) for decades to come.
Wind and solar energy: emerging issues
Meanwhile, wind and solar power are facing serious problems. First, wind and solar power are proving expensive. Up until 2000, when coal dominated electricity generation, Australia had one of the lowest electricity prices in the world.
Since then, the share of wind and solar energy in electricity generation has increased from almost zero to over 20 percent today. Australia now has some of the highest energy costs in the world. Reasons for this include: high transmission costs associated with wind; Solar farms, which are often located far from the main grid; the need for backup power from the battery; Coal and gas-fired power plants are forced to operate below capacity (but remain online); and the cost of maintaining frequency and stability in the network.
Wind and solar power are unreliable and will continue to be, even with battery backup.
Mark Mills of the Manhattan Institute explains the battery problem in relation to the US: “The annual output of Tesla’s Gigafactory, the world’s largest battery factory, could supply the annual electricity needs of the US for three minutes.” It would take 1,000 years of production time to produce enough Make batteries to power the United States for two days.” (The New Energy Economy: An Exercise in Magical Thinking)
And note that in the US and Australia, wind and solar droughts can last longer than two days.
In most countries, including Australia, reliance on renewable energy and batteries for base-load power poses seemingly insurmountable financial and logistical challenges.
The prevailing political opinion is that the future belongs to renewable energies. But unless these two problems are overcome, renewable energy may not have a future at all.
Open discussion about coal
By avoiding the public discussion about coal, Australia is burying its head in the sand. Liberal leader Peter Dutton did Australia a favor this month by opening a debate on nuclear power and questioning the Labor Party’s approach to natural gas. But Liberals have yet to grapple with the importance of coal and are talking much more about the importance of natural gas.
And the natural gas industry doesn’t help with its view that coal is its competitor – that “we can significantly reduce emissions by replacing higher-emission fuels (that is, coal) with cleaner natural gas.” (Australian Petroleum & Production Exploration Association, August 10, 2021)
For those calling for continued reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, natural gas (like coal) is part of the problem, not part of the solution.
In January 1940, at the start of World War II, Winston Churchill – who would become British Prime Minister in May 1940 – said of the neutrality of European countries:
“Everyone hopes that if they feed the crocodile enough, the crocodile will eat them last.” They all hope the storm will pass before it’s their turn to be devoured. But I fear – I fear very much – that the storm will not pass.’
Churchill was prophetic. Most of the affected neutral countries (notably Belgium, Holland, Denmark and Norway) were overrun by Germany a few months after its January 1940 declaration.
The natural gas industry in Australia is practically feeding the crocodile. The possibility that it might be next on the list after coal should be considered. And think of coal as an ally, not a rival.
Liberals should think the same way.
Footnote: For costs and other issues associated with solar energy, see John Mole’s article, Solar: a risky waste of time and money, Spectator Australia, 17 May 2023.
Brian Wawn is Director of the Energy Bureau, a non-profit organization dedicated to stimulating discussion about climate and related energy policy.